The Days My Mobile World Stood Still

Admit it – you’re in love with, or at least heavily enamored of, your portable communication devices. Be it a PDA, smart phone, or ordinary cell phone. And, if you are like most of the rest of the world’s mobile communicators, your mobile device is your lifeline to the rest of the world.

It gets worse if you have a truly smart mobile phone device, such as T-Mobile’s Sidekick II – a GSM/GPRS/MMS device I became a proud owner of a few months ago. The Sidekick II [see photo] is a small engineering marvel – with a nice, big screen which can be swiveled out to access a full keyboard. The device can be programmed to check and download mail from a regular POP3 mailbox, and is amazingly easy to type on. Applications for purchase include an SSH terminal program which allows folks like myself to securely sign into our Linux servers to perform management tasks. On top of that, you can synchronize it with your Outlook address book, task list, and calendar. And, it even takes photos (crappy ones, but photos nonetheless).

The Sidekick II has become a pop icon of sorts, with pop tarts Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton openly flaunting theirs (mind you, Paris did have her Sidekick content hacked recently, revealing star’s phone numbers, topless photos of herself, and a variety of other personal information revealed). The device has also been featured in music videos. But even non-cool people such as myself own them and love them.

With the Sidekick II I found I no longer had to lug a notebook computer around with me everywhere, as I could deal with a majority of my e-mail via the keypad. My only trauma would occur when traveling to places where the GPRS connection was unavailable (such as roaming on AT&T in San Juan, or back home on the island of Bonaire). But when that trauma occurs, it results in twitchy fingers, constant checking of the phone to see if maybe it was just a bad signal, etc.

So imagine my surprise when Sunday night in San Francisco, the night before the Game Developers Conference (GDC), and ironically the GDC Mobile conference as well, when I lose my data signal – my connection with the world. I go back to my hotel room, pull out my notebook and try to connect to the Desktop Interface for my Sidekick – no-go. Panic starts to set in. I contact T-Mobile support. They tell me to wait a little and try again. I do, and no change. I decide to let the issue sit overnight, but in the morning, no change.

I arrive at the GDC, and I see a number of people with blank, glazed looks in their eyes – all of them are trying to get data out of their Sidekicks. Some are shaking the devices, and others just stare forlornly at the screen, as if the device might take pity on them and thus start to work again.

There was no change on Monday. T-Mobile advises clients there is a problem, but it is being worked on, and tries to placate Sidekick users by telling them that they can still use the Sidekick to make or place calls and do SMS messaging. The fact that if that’s all we wanted to do we would have gotten a more mundane phone is lost on them.

Tuesday – still no data. Finally inquiring with Danger (the maker of the Sidekick and operator of the Sidekick data servers) indicates that their servers crashed in a big way, and that they would definitely have them operational by Wednesday. Wednesday rolls by and still no joy. The tone of message posts by fellow Sidekick devotees on the HipTop web site run by Danger turns decidedly nasty. Depression has set in among many users.

Statement from Danger’s PR Department:

Danger and T-Mobile regret any inconveniences experienced by Sidekick customers as a result of an identified technical issue that has been limiting customer access to data services since Sunday, March 6.  Voice and SMS functions on the Sidekick are unaffected.

Danger engineers have put fixes in place, and expect data performance to improve throughout the day on March 8th; and full service to be restored by tomorrow morning, March 9th.

As I write this it is now midday Thursday, and I can now finally get into the web site to view the data which is supposed to be on my phone, and can synchronize that with Outlook.

But my phone still won’t connect to the server, so I am still in a data black hole when it comes to my Sidekick II. So, maybe later today I will find data Nirvana again. Or maybe not. One can only hope…

Fortunately, I have had my notebook as a back-up solution – it’s not nearly as convenient as the Sidekick, but at least it works, and San Francisco is raging with free WiFi. I also made sure years ago to set up redundant mailboxes on mail servers I control and manage, so unlike countless other poor sods who had tossed all devices but their Sidekicks (and were bemoaning that fact on-line), I was not locked out of four or five days of e-mail.

But still, this was (and still is) a real eye opener. We have come to count on most technology as dependable and stable, and forget that all systems are inherently unreliable (Windows helps remind of this – not sure whether we should be thankful for that though). So when an event like a multi-day data black out occurs, we go into shock, followed by withdrawal.

So what can one do to mitigate such future, and inevitable data black outs? Here are my suggestions:

– Don’t put your data communication eggs all in one basket, and allow for multiple ways to contact others, check your mail, and be reachable by others.

– Use redundant mail boxes and redundant communications devices (like remembering what your long distance calling card number is)

– Don’t get rid of your notebook computer just yet.

– And keep pens and paper at hand for when all technology fails at the same time

The final lesson I learned from this experience is that even a cell phones have a soft reboot function (affectionately referred to as the three-finger-salute on PCs) – for the Sidekick II, hold done the “@”, “0”, and “1” buttons all at the same time.

Ironically, just as I finished this column, my data service came back. Would it have come back if I hadn’t written this? Next up, conspiracy theory and causality…